“Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

I suppose I could be called an early adopter, at least for the early years of personal computing, but I don’t really consider myself one, because I bought my first computer used from my brother in 1978, when he upgraded to a TRS-80 from his funny little Commodore PET.

Actually, the PET wasn’t so little, physically, at least. It was larger than a typewriter, a large angular metal case with a teensy calculator-style “Chiclet” keyboard and a small monochrome CRT. It ran on the MOS 6502 processor, had 8K of memory, and data storage was on magnetic tape via the built-in cassette recorder.

The PET taught me fatalism: I would spend an hour or two painstakingly typing in a BASIC program and then hold my breath when I told it to “Save” and waited several minutes while the cassette recorded to see if this time I’d get to see the program work instead of the error message that told me I had to start all over from the beginning. (The poor thing couldn’t handle incremental saves.) If I was lucky, I’d get to see my program run; more likely, it would start and then run into a typo, which I’d have to find and avoid reproducing the next time I typed the program in.

After a few months of this, I upgraded to an Atari 800, which had a real keyboard, real RAM, and hooked up to my color TV. It was even capable of word processing, though in that funny non-proportional dot-matrix font without ascenders or descenders that was common on computers back then. This was a much more fun toy—there were games like Pong and Space Invaders and eventually Centipede, and there was enough memory (48K) to do slightly more complex programming (though I have no memory at all of any of the programs I wrote).

A few months after I got the Atari, I started working at the flagship store of a local department store chain as the manager of their new (and all shiny black with red neon) personal computer department. We carried the Mattel video game system (which we didn’t sell many of—it was pretty dated by then, and not that good to start with), the Atari 400 and 800 (along with their spiffy printer, which had two on/off switches because they thought the local/online switch would confuse consumers too much), and, of course, the Apple II. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the Apple II; the Apple IIe that was released after my first Christmas at the store seemed a big improvement, though I still wasn’t tempted to replace my Atari.

Unlike the other computer manufacturers whose products we carried, Apple Computer had sales reps who visited retail outlets, to see how we were doing and to provide advice and training and news. Steve Palmer soon became a favorite visitor, especially in the late fall of 1983. Apple had a new computer coming, he said, completely unlike the clunky Apple III or Lisa. He couldn’t tell us anything about it, he said, but he added, “I guarantee you’ll have one yourself in two months. I guarantee it.”

He was right, of course. In early January 1984, I drove down to San Francisco with my counterpart from our Fresno store, and met the chain’s electronic buyer at the Hyatt Regency for the big dealer announcement of the mysterious new Apple computer. After we signed our non-disclosure agreements, we were given information packets, with pictures and descriptions of the new Macintosh, which would be released within a few weeks. Several hundred of us sat in the huge ballroom, where songs from Thriller blared, and eventually we got an interesting—though not terribly exciting—slide presentation, along with the famous ad that would be shown during the SuperBowl. Unfortunately, Steve Jobs did the presentation at the East Coast gathering—we on the West Coast got John Sculley.

After the slideshow, though, things changed completely. After the slideshow came the hands-on breakout sessions, and as we walked into the classroom we each made a weird little “ooh” sound—the Macintosh was smaller than we’d expected. It was weirdly cute.

And it was amazing. It had those real typefaces, black on white, and was incredibly easy to use. We got to play with MacPaint, the drawing program unlike anything seen before on what were then still called microcomputers, and learned to cut and paste text in MacWrite, which seemed almost magical, reminding of the years in grade school when I’d wished for a machine that would make writing error-free essays easier than my penmanship did.

Later that day, we learned about what they called the Own-A-Mac program. On the theory that sales people who knew how to use their computers would be better at selling them, Apple offered us the opportunity to buy the $2495 Macintosh, its $595 printer, and a carrying bag for $1055. Not only that, but participants would be enrolled in a program which allowed us to purchase software at steep discounts (a minimum of 60%, as I recall) from manufactures like Microsoft, Lotus, Electronic Arts, and many others.

I bought one, of course, just like Steve Palmer had told me I would, and I’ve been upgrading ever since, to the point that I’ve lost track of how many Macs we’ve had. They’ve not all been magical machines like that first one, the kind of gadget that is simply satisfying to use. Some were merely okay, but an astonishing number from the years after Steve Jobs returned to Apple simply made me happy to work with—clearly I was in the demographic his design sense targeted.

My Pismo PowerBook, and my little aluminum 12″ were among my favorites, at least until my current PowerBook Pro/iPad/iPhone gadget combo. It’s silly, but I often use all three devices at once—working on a document on my laptop while I refer to a pdf on the iPad and use the calculator on my iPhone.

I can use Windows machines, too, of course, but I have to think about them too much to be happy using them. Despite my early adopter years playing with the PET and the Atari, I’m into computers not for the geek, but for what I can do with them—write and edit and calculate—and Steve Jobs’ machines suit the way I work better than any other tools I’ve ever used.

So tonight, after I heard the news, I just had to go upstairs and pull my original Mac out from the closet where it’s sat for years and take a look at it:

that old logo

The bag seemed so cool, but I don't think I ever used it more than once or twice.

Pocket for the keyboard, pocket for the cables (and the external drive, which I don't have any longer), and a pocket on the inside of the bag top for the mouse.

Pre-USB connections

I'd completely forgotten you used to have to screw cables in to attach them securely.

That keyboard was one of the nicest I ever used—at the time. Tonight it felt heavy and clunky. And I'm so much a trackpad person these days, I almost forgot to plug the mouse in.

So, all set up and plugged in, and I can’t even remember clearly what the start-up screen is supposed to look like. I upgraded this machine with more memory and a faster processor, so it’s functionally equivalent to a MacPlus.

At least, it used to be:

Oh, well. It's eight months older than my older daughter, and she just turned 27.

But that’s okay—I’m happy with what I can do with my current crop of Apple devices. I hope Apple will be able to keep it up for a couple more decades, too.

But one of these days, I think maybe I’ll dig up a Torx driver so I can open the old Mac up and see the names molded on the inside. As much as that crew believed they did something amazing, they had no idea what they started. Without Steve Jobs, it would never have happened.

(Oh, and my DOS/MS-DOS/Windows dad now owns not only his old white iPod, but an iPhone 4 and an iPad.)

OK, maybe just one more cool app before I get back to work

When my iPad came, my friend Dianna said, “And we’ll never hear from her again.” (She has one, too, so she knows.)

I keep meaning not to check the App Store or Engadget or TUAW to see if there are any more nifty apps I should add, but somehow I always manage to ignore the plaintive call of my current book draft. Somehow there is always another app I absolutely, positively must have—and then, of course, I have to play around with it for a while, just to rationalize having downloaded it.

My app mania does seem to be subsiding, though. I think I’ve got pretty much all I need (for the time being, at least). Weirdly, part of what’s letting me get back into my normal routine is the last app I bought: Instapaper Pro.

Why didn't I ever find Instapaper before?

I can’t believe I never got around to checking out Instapaper before I got the iPad. You see, I’ve always been a fan of good nonfiction writing, but more and more recently, I’ve found that I just don’t read long articles on the web through to the end. Maybe, I thought, it was my deteriorating vision or even that shortening of the attention span that technology doomsayers lament.

It turns out, though, that I’m just irritated by the time it takes to stop and load the next page of a multipage article. (I have the same problem with eInk devices like the Kindle—the time it takes for each page to load is just long enough to be distracting.) Instapaper does away with all that—when I find a long article I want to read later, all I have to do is click on the “Read Later” bookmarklet in my browser’s bookmark bar, and Instapaper concatenates all the pages into one long file and saves it to my Instapaper app. (It also saves it to my account at the Instapaper website, so it’s not iPad dependent at all.) It’s been lovely rediscovering how much I enjoy reading long-form articles free of all that web-distraction.

And that focused feeling I get reading in Instapaper actually puts me in the mood to get seriously down to work. How can I argue with that?

As the look and feel change, so do our minds . . .

I’m a text geek. Most of what I do professionally involves text, either writing it or making it more appealing to read. I think in text, to the extent that (as I wrote about in Viral Learning) when I think of the color red, what I see in my mind is not the color itself, but the letters r-e-d (in a serif font, of course).

Every so often, though, something reminds me that the way I look at text has changed considerably over my lifetime. Consider the page spread here, which I shot from the 1954 Britannica Book of the Year my brother sent me for my birthday last year (because it covers the events of 1953, the year I was born).

what spiffy text used to look like

Once upon a time, this was bright and appealing page design, at least for publications as dignified as Britannica. When I received this volume last summer, I was shocked at how the pages looked–when we were kids, my brother and I used to love looking at these yearbooks partly because they had photos and looked far more interesting than the regular encyclopedia volumes.

As an adult, I find these pages unappealing—they’re a slog to read through, and not just because of the tiny print demanding too much of my presbyopic eyes. The margins are too narrow, the blocks of texts are too solid, and subheads are virtually nonexistent. I’m far less willing now to scan through the pages looking for the specific information I want.

Why so? I’ve been trained over the past three decades by the changes in the ways information is presented now. The early GUIs, like the first Mac OS, taught us to notice typefaces—sometimes explicitly (most of us quickly learned to avoid ransom note fonts), but more often in ways beyond our conscious notice. This was brought home to me a couple of years ago when my parents returned my copy of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth unread (they’d not wanted to watch the movie because they find his voice annoying), because, as my mom put it, “It’s too dumbed down with all the pictures and big print.” I’d thought the book was an effective conversion of the slideshow, keeping the feel of the original with the charts and photos while adding plenty of additional information (including plenty of text). It would not have occurred to me that the size of the print meant the contents demanded a lower level of cognition. In short, my parents (in their 70s) expect serious nonfiction to look like the Britannica used to. My own expectations are different now.

I demand more now from the nonfiction I read. (With fiction, I’m still perfectly content with page after page of straight text–after all, I’m still into linear stories rather than the graphic novels that appeal to my older daughter these days.) i want good tables of contents and running heads and plenty of subheads to guide me. Modern publishing technology means that adding all those bells and whistles—making texts pretty!—is easy. It’s the effect of using software instead of lead type.

But I’m also reading far more than I read three decades ago. I’m not reading a book or two a week the way I used to—I’m reading books, plus articles from journals I’ve never seen physical copies of, newspapers from other continents, not to mention all the web information sources that don’t even have paper analogues. The volume of material I read is probably several times what it was when I was confined to paper. Without all the assistance from modern design esthetics, I couldn’t get through everything that interests me these days. I’ve learned to sort and judge material in ways I don’t even yet realize.

My brain processes are undoubtedly going through more changes even as I wonder at how they’ve already changed. Take that Pulse Reader on my iPad, for instance. It’s not only a pretty implementation of a news reader, but it lets me view more feeds more quickly than I could with my old RSS readers. (The Geek.com review has more photos and a video.) In another year, who knows what new apps will be changing the ways I think and work?


Pulse Reader on the iPad

Update on the new toy

It’s been a week now that I’ve been playing with my new iPad (and by the lack of blog entries I’ve posted during that week, it’s pretty obvious that playing with the iPad is what I’ve been doing).

The iPad is now my favorite tool for reading email and web cruising. The Mail app, especially in landscape mode, is just plain gorgeous, and far easier to read than on my MacBook. For my RSS feeds, I’ve recently started using Pulse, a newsreader app, which has somewhat the same esthetic effect–Pulse gives you each feed in a scrollable row, so that it’s easy to skim through them for interesting items, and allows you to view the full items either as text or html, and gives you the option of jumping into Safari. Essentially, my morning mail-and-web routine now uses my iPad, which frees me from my desk to wander where I will while I catch up with news from the outside world.

Writing has been a bit trickier to work out. Though I like Pages well enough for its design and layout options, and for the occasional short letter, I’m not a fan of it for my regular writing. On my laptop, I use Scrivener for most of my writing, exporting to Nisus Writer Pro when I need something that looks like a Word doc to the rest of the world. But Scrivener is the product of a teeny two-person shop and there is no iPad version planned, so for the time being, I’m using myTexts for my everyday writing. It’s a nice straightforward, no-frills writing app, great for banging out the words without worrying about styles and formatting.

All I need now is to tweak the ergonomics of writing on the iPad  a bit. I’ve used a Bluetooth keyboard at my desk with my MacBook for a few months, which has worked wonders for my shoulders—my desk is too high for comfortable typing on the laptop, and if I actually use the laptop in my lap, the arms and wrists are happier, but my eyes and neck and shoulders are not.

Sitting at a table, with my keyboard on my lap and the iPad on the table works pretty well, but I think I may toddle off to Ikea one of these days for a wheeled laptop tray, so I can slouch with my feet up in my recliner or on my sofa with my keyboard on my lap and the iPad floating at the right eye level.

So I’m comfy at home, or with the 3G, free to read my morning email at the local Peet’s. Life is good.